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“Perfect Participation”

Illustration by Jonathan Horcasitas.

After I received my very first “I voted today” sticker, I felt that I didn’t quite grasp the concept of politics and I never understood why people felt so passionately about it.

As I’ve grown in my academic career and become more aware about the world around me, I’ve realized how important one vote can be to the future of the entire country. This year, the campaigns for possible presidential candidates have pushed for the support of the Latino community – but who exactly are they targeting?

Now that I am more appealing as a Latina voter, I feel even more uncertain about my choices for the election.

Entering into a world of professionals and academics, I wanted to explore why my vote matters in the first place.

To make more sense of my thoughts on the upcoming election, I decided to speak to a professional Latina, UCLA’s Chicano Literature professor Marissa López, about her outlook on the upcoming election.

One issue that we both agreed has gotten much attention and needs to be addressed is immigration.

“I feel that the Republican Party has the power to drive immigration policy into a very ugly place, and for me that is my primary concern,” she said.

This is a common issue amongst Latinos, especially with the implementation of the DREAM Act and initiatives that are meant to help immigrants. However, it seems that these issues cannot be conquered simply by one president. Professor López elaborated on why she felt immigration issues have not been resolved in the Obama administration.

“I feel that the president is a figure-head who cannot necessarily do that much on his own. Obama, whom we thought would be good for immigration, actually turned the tide on immigration policies since the Bush administration, and as a result deportation has actually increased,” she said.

Her comment resonated with me because I also believe that immigration is an extremely large issue for the United States and it has been a difficult obstacle to tackle. I know that in my family, immigrating to the United States was the only option for a better life – which I still believe holds true today. That is why I believe people should not be refused the right to come to a country with better opportunities for their future.

However, I feel that because candidates are seeking the Latino Vote, their campaigns are catering to Latino issues only as a means to an end: to be the next President of the United States.

But do any of the candidates truly appear to be fighting for immigrants? Or are they blatantly using them as tools for their own personal gain?

“Well, the honest answer is that Latinos are instrumentalized in politics, but will hopefully become a big enough economic and tax-base that people will have to pay attention. I can’t really see how any of the things I am concerned about are being addressed. However, there has been a little bit of movement on the Federal DREAM Act,” said Professor López.

Although voters are targeted and used as tools for votes – there is also a great sense of voter apathy. Most of the time, I feel as though people are checking off a bunch of boxes for people and things that they have never even heard of.

Voter ignorance is what concerns me most. I felt this way when I first turned 18, and I feel this way now going into the next election because I want to be knowledgeable about ALL of things I vote for. However, Professor López had a very different opinion about the first time she voted and the way she feels about it now.

“I used to follow presidential politics very closely, but after years of doing that, I am more convinced that it’s a show. It’s hard for me to follow presidential politics in the way that people do. It feels like reality TV, it is reality TV – it’s even packaged that way,” she said.

As far as televised debates are concerned, I can’t say I enjoy them much because it always seems to amount to bickering and disagreement. Because the debates are so sensationalized, it has made them more popular because they appeal to the emotions of the audience, ultimately entertaining them.

“I may say that I’ve become more jaded about politics, but at the same time that is our governing system. And Cesar Chavez said ‘We don’t need perfect political systems, we need perfect participation.’ I believe this to be true. I will vote like I’ve done every year. We have a participatory government even if it doesn’t work out the way we want it to; it’s really about individual choice. People are always smarter than the ‘media’ gives them credit for,” said Professor López.

I agree with Professor López that voting is vital to our government, and that it is the participants that make a difference in the future of this nation. But at the same time, I want to make sure that I don’t get caught up in the sensationalism of the media that will reduce me to simply a pawn in the game of politics.

I know that my vote is important and I want to be counted. But, I know that if I don’t ask the right questions, or worse, let someone make the decisions for me – I will be just as bad as the apathetic voter. The only question I am left with is – who will convince me that they’re worth my vote?

Political Apathy vs. Political Awareness

“Opportunity” The image portrays a couple looking through a glass pane. The areas behind the glass are simplified and very subtractive. An open section in the glass shows their faces clearly and actually places part of the glass barrier behind them signifying the forward approach to the opportunities available to them. Previously published in La Gente’s Fall 2011 Opportunity Issue. Painted by Jose Loza. Numbers from the political survey by Maria Teresa Armendariz Guerra.

Karla: “Ugh! I hate these ads! Why do they waste my time?”
Me: “Well, it is that time of the year, election season.”
Karla: “Yeah, that is a waste of my time too.”

That was a conversation my roommate and I had one night while watching television. The extent of our conversation was short, yet it was enough to get me wondering: what did Karla mean when she said that elections were a “waste” of her time? Weren’t the aim of election ads to motivate viewers to vote in the upcoming elections rather than make a person change the channel in disgust?

When first starting this article, I wanted to gather a detailed consensus on the Latina/o student vote, who was going to vote for which candidate and why? But instead of answers in favor of the Democratic or Republican candidate, I received a lot of shrugs and head shakes accompanied with “I don’t know” and “I don’t plan on voting.”

My roommate is not the only UCLA student who I know who has expressed apathy in regard to the upcoming 2012 presidential election. As a Chicana/o Studies major, I am constantly in conversation with students who have well-established opinions on political and social issues such as immigration reform and international relations with Mexico.

But the prospect of voting in November? Forget it. A lot of students, even beyond the Chicana/o Studies department, are showing severe signs of apathy when it comes to engaging in the upcoming election and choosing to vote.

Miguel Murillo, a third-year transfer Chicana/o Studies and Women’s Studies double-major, is unable to vote due to his legal permanent resident status. Despite this, he makes an effort to stay informed on mainstream politics and the upcoming election, though he’s observed that fellow Bruins seem less interested. “I think majority of professors try to stress the importance of politics, voting, and the upcoming election but I’ve heard a lot of students use the excuse that they are too busy with school to stay informed,” stated Miguel. “Also, not seeing real, tangible change in society has discouraged students.”

That is not to say that every student holds no interest in politics. I attended the Janet Napolitano protest at UCLA earlier in the quarter. The group of supporters consisted of members from various organizations based on campus and in the greater LA community. Majority of students were not open to discuss the election at the event, which is understandable, considering we were there for a specific reason. Yet, if a political rally is not the place to discuss the upcoming election, then where can I find other UCLA students willing to talk about it?

“UCLA is a reflection of what we can see happening in Latino communities across the nation.  People have jobs, financial worries, familial responsibilities, community activities, and just generally struggle to survive. So it may be hard to stay on top of political news,” said Pepe Aguilar-Hernandez, a Chicana/o Studies TA and PhD graduate student. “The biggest group of students I saw politicize the campus during the 2008 presidential election was UCLA IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success). Even though undocumented students are unable to vote, they tend to stress the importance of voting to those that can. Hopefully there can be the same movement of Latino student voters centered on voting as an act of solidarity to their communities.”

If daily obligations and a sense of disappointment about Obama’s first term are discouraging Latino students to vote en masse, how can they make their opinions effective in mainstream politics?  “The important thing to realize is that there are other means of political mobilization. Students may choose to work in non-profit organizations, produce political commentary via the arts, film, and education trajectories,” stated Aguilar-Hernandez. “There are different ways to create political change within the community instead of voting and students are creatively seeking them out.”

There are several factors to consider to why there is an atmosphere of apathy amongst Latino student voters.  Students might be intentionally isolating themselves from mainstream politics because they feel discouraged.  Or students might have a hectic school, work, and life schedule that does not allow time to catch up with election news.  Whatever the reason, the Latina/o student on campus needs to make an effort to exercise the citizen right to vote because the reason of “I don’t have time for politics” is not good enough.